Neighborhoods wait for Ulman's call on Howard redistricting

Residents of Columbia, Ellicott City and Elkridge neighborhoods are waiting for County Executive Ken Ulman to weigh in on a plan that has the potential to shift several areas among County Council districts.

The County Council on Monday broke a months-long deadlock on a redistricting plan proposed last year. The final plan, which needs Ulman's approval, would satisfy Ellicott City residents who complained loudly about an earlier proposal to move them into a Columbia district.

But the plan also splits Elkridge, a measure that drew fresh complaints from people who live in that area.

Ulman has until March 15 to decide on the council's plan, but he could also veto the council's decision or take no action at all. Either of those moves would cause a proposal from a county redistricting commission to take effect, junking the council plan.

The council's map keeps the Ellicott City neighborhoods of Wheatfield and Brampton Hills, near Route 100, in District 1. The area is represented by Courtney Watson, a Democrat. The earlier plan would have moved those communities to District 2, represented by Democrat Calvin Ball.

"The council's redistricting bill has not been sent to the executive yet. We will have no comment on the legislation until the executive has received it and had time to fully study what is being proposed," Ulman spokesman Kevin Enright said Tuesday.

The council voted 3-2 on a map drafted by Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents Columbia. That plan, however, splits Elkridge, which several residents said is not uncommon for a community they feel is often overlooked.

"It's frustrating," said Cathy Hudson, an Elkridge resident for 50 years. "We're used to that," she said of what she perceived as the county's neglect of the quickly growing area on the edge of the county.

The council was also divided over how to treat the Columbia Village of Dorsey's Search. Two members disagreed on whether the village's top priority was to remain in the same district with other Columbia Association villages or to remain intact. The council decided to keep it in its current district, represented by Sigaty.

Village Board Chairman Dan Woodruff said Tuesday afternoon that "our main concern was staying together."

Sigaty, Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Fulton Republican Greg Fox voted in favor of Sigaty's amended map while Democrats Courtney Watson and Ball, who represents east Columbia, voted against it.

Les than two weeks before the county was required to adopt a map that would dictate the council boundary lines for the next 10 years, four of the five council members had submitted their own alternatives.

Alternatives proposed by Sigaty, Watson and Fox tried to placate Wheatfield and Brampton Hills, while Terrasa's put them in District 2. Only Watson's moved Dorsey's Search from its current district to her district, while Sigaty, Fox and Terrasa's map kept the CA village in Sigaty's District 4. Watson argued that only her map attempted to preserve Elkridge in one district.

Watson's district, the most populous of Howard's five council districts with 62,435 residents, was likely to be the most contentious, as it was supposed to shrink by about 5,000 people.

She said Monday before her vote on Sigaty's map that "the concerns of the Elkridge residents have not been addressed. The concerns of Elkridge fell on deaf ears. My vote is no."

More than two dozen Elkridge residents attended a redistricting commission in May at the Elkridge Library.

Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, said he felt the concerns of Elkridge's concerned were neglected and that many alternative plans were introduced too late in the process for residents to have a chance to evaluate them.

"There was no public discussion of these maps," he said, saying that many of the previous council hearings were to discuss the commission-recommended map, which did not include the same changes to Elkridge.

But one group of residents was pleased with the outcome.

With a bundle of colorful redistricting map printouts in tow, Debbie Bures-Walker, a Wheatfield resident, said Monday night she was pleased that her neighborhood's efforts to lobby the council paid off.

At several council hearings, Wheatfield and Brampton Hills residents made up the majority of those protesting the redistricting commission's map, expressing concerns over being separated from the Long Gate Shopping Center, the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department and their neighbors.

"This is a community, this is walkable geography," she said of her community. She said placing arbitrary council boundaries through her neighborhood would make them feel disjointed. But even with Monday's vote in hand, she remained reserved. "We were told this is a very political process," she said

David Marker, a redistricting commission member, who also had served on the commission 10 years ago, said he was disappointed by the council's decision to keep the Ellicott City neighborhoods in District 1.

"Redistricting was an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the future, for having the kind of progressive, forward-looking government that Howard County has been known for," he said.

He added that he felt redistricting offered the county "a real opportunity to have Columbia and Ellicott City work together. I thought the commission's was better."

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